Mike Burden sets his sights on another unsuspecting opponent who catches a screen pass and can't wait to turn upfield.
Burden, a 6-foot-1-inch, 205-pound Palatine junior who tracks adversaries with the certainty of a heat-seeking missile, unleashes his muscular body full-force.
The crunching hit reverberates up to the press box, where opposing coaches grimace and openly admire Burden's style of play.
"There isn't anybody in the entire state who hits harder than that kid," said one coach.
Burden's intimidating presence heads the Tribune's 1994 All-State defensive team, a reckless abandon that will play to a statewide television audience when Palatine faces Providence in the Class 5A championship Saturday at Illinois State.
Burden and Downers Grove South defensive back Mike McGrath are repeat selections from last year's team. McGrath proved he could hit with the best during an early-season confrontation with 6-4, 245-pound John Cerasani of Schaumburg, who is headed for Notre Dame next season.
"We play Mike wherever we think the offense is going," said Palatine coach Joe Petricca of his combination defensive back/linebacker.
Imagine how much more impact Burden might have if he only played defense. He has doubled up all season as the Pirates' power running back and has assumed even more of the offensive burden since starting quarterback Matt Marzec broke his collarbone three weeks ago.
"There have been a couple games where I was pretty exhausted in the fourth quarter," Burden said after a victory over Buffalo Grove. "When I go home after games, I'm pretty sore. But I get to dish it out on defense, and I like that. Why do I hit so hard? I like to let people know I'm coming."
Burden and McGrath are joined in the secondary by Evanston's Marcus White, touted as the top defensive back prospect in the state. On the second team, Shepard's Tony Pryor was the SICA North's defensive player of the year and Ryan Spielman of Bishop McNamara the Catholic League's MVP.
They're joined by a couple of spectacular small-school, Downstate stars. Pontiac's Jason Smith returned one interception for a 70-yard touchdown and scored on kickoff returns of 96, 82, 88 and 86 yards. Doubling as a wideout, his career yardage total was 3,199 yards, averaging 19 yards whenever he touched the ball. Carthage's Jason Duncan had 10 interceptions, returning two for TDs. He also returned one punt and two kickoffs for scores and averaged 36.6 yards per catch as a receiver.
Imagine how that secondary would thrive behind NFL-size defensive linemen Mike McGee (6-5, 280) of Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin, Jeff Alheit (6-8, 295) of McHenry, Jamie Wu (6-4, 300) of St. Charles and 6-3, 230-pound speed pass-rusher Rameel Connor of Proviso West, who is headed to Illinois.
"Rameel is the best pure pass-rusher in the state," said his coach, John Wilson. "He was involved in over 100 tackles, including 21 for losses. He's quick off the ball with great acceleration and tremendous moves. His 39-inch vertical leap allowed him to deflect seven passes."
In between the stellar secondary and the monstrous defensive front are four linebackers who commanded the utmost respect on their teams. Naperville Central's Bryan McNulty was the DuPage Valley Conference's defensive player of the year, as was St. Rita's Tim Angsten in the Catholic League. Chris Havens is a primary reason why Homewood-Flossmoor is playing for a 6A state title against Naperville North on Saturday and Jeff Weisse led West Aurora to one of its best seasons ever.
Second-team linebackers Ron Barr of Belvidere and Levelle Brown of Naperville North are also competing in Normal this weekend. Barr set a 5A title game record last year with 19 tackles in a 7-0 victory over Bolingbrook. Despite being injured during the regular season, Wheaton-Warrenville South's Ron Grego was a unanimous all-conference pick and considered one of the top college prospects in the state.
Special mention must be given to several near-misses on this year's offensive and defensive squads. Mattoon's athletic wideout Josh Rutledge was also third in the Class AA slam-dunk contest last year and fourth in the state in the long jump.
Lexington linebacker Mike Heuer, who plays in the 1A title game against Sterling Newman, had 98 solo tackles and 62 assists. Pekin QB Jason Sirotak passed for 2,541 yards-third-best in state history-and 21 TDs. Steve Duzan of Downstate Marshall rushed for 2,001 yards and 25 TDs while Tuscola linebacker Stan Wienke made 154 tackles, forced seven fumbles-recovering four-and picked off two passes.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times